AI News, The Way to Make Delivery Drones Work Is Using...Trucks?

The Way to Make Delivery Drones Work Is Using...Trucks?

Amp Holdings is a company that’s making a hybrid electric delivery truck that costs delivery companies 30 cents per mile to operate, as opposed to the dollar per mile that diesel trucks cost.

First, it plans to use the trucks as mobile launch and recharging bases to bring the drones (and packages) closer to their destinations, allowing each drone to carry significantly more over a shorter distance, up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms).

It sounds great: the truck drives around delivering the heavy stuff, while the drone zips back and forth dropping off lighter packages, saving lots of time and consequently lots of money.

When Amp’s HorseFly-equipped delivery truck is within range of a drone-deliverable address, the truck driver gives the package to the drone, which scans the barcode and sends the driver’s iPad a satellite image of the address.

Amp suggests that the drone will now fly autonomously to the location selected on the satellite map, but this is where having a truck as a launch point causes problems.With a more centralized model (like taking off from a warehouse), the takeoff and high level flight probably could be automated, since you can study the area and pre-select paths free from obstacles.

But with a delivery truck that’s driving around pseudorandomly, that’s not going to work: Either the driver will have to know the neighborhood well enough to select an unobstructed path or the drone will have to have autonomous sense and avoid capabilities (Amp is not doing this).

Now for the clever bit of Amp’s approach: to deal with the most unpredictable and dangerous part of this whole drone delivery business—the final approach and delivery itself—Amp is delegating this task to a remote human operator.

The Next Big Thing You Missed: Amazon's Delivery Drones Could Work—They Just Need Trucks

There's a big problem with the logistics of Amazon's grand plan to deliver packages via flying drone: Sending swarms of aircraft from Amazon warehouses to American homes isn't nearly as efficient as simply driving the packages on four wheels.

Instead of dragging a 20,000-pound truck five minutes out of the way to drop off a three-pound box, for example, a driver can keep working the main route while sending the drone off on side jobs.

In the world of parcel delivery, where every inch traveled and minute worked is measured in dollars and cents, AMP believes truck-paired drones can save enough time and money to make the fulfillment industry take notice.

His company, which makes an electric delivery van called the Workhorse, set to work with university aerospace engineers to build a prototype delivery drone called the HorseFly.

These generally carry 120 to 150 packages per day per route, a quantity optimized across all the costs of parcel delivery, from gas to labor to truck wear-and-tear.

But to equal the capacity of one UPS truck, an Amazon drone would need to make 120 to 150 round trips per day between its hub and people's homes–hardly a streamlined vision of the future.

He says that the fuel cost for running a diesel-powered delivery truck comes to a little more than 50 cents per mile, a price he argues is about as low as diesel technology will allow.

In the short-term, Burns imagines the drones navigating autonomously but landing manually with the aid of a pilot at a remote location, an option that's not available yet under current Federal Aviation Administration rules.

The Dream of Delivery Drones Is Alive (And On A Truck)

When Bezos made the prediction that self-guided drones would start delivering packages to customers' doors as early as 2015, it was clear to everyone building, flying and hoping to fly drones that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had no plans to allow for something like Prime Air to function.

My crotchety opinions of Bezos, 60 Minutes, and the way Amazon's drone program was debuted are my own.] Despite denouncements in the media, the company's plan become synonymous with the push for commercial drone rules in the U.S. Now that those initial regulations have arrived, the attention is still on Amazon, and whether it's going to take its delivery drones to another country, presumably one with less stringent safety requirements.

The FAA's requirement that unmanned aircraft stay within a human's unbroken line of sight throughout its operation is a deal-breaker for Prime Air, as is the restriction on carrying external payloads.

Delivery trucks—even the electric ones that Amp makes—are unassuming workhorses, and a drone that more efficiently distributes packages within a mile or two radius of that truck is less evocative than the thought of fleets of robots dotting the skyline of major cities.

Drones, which still aren't as nimble in cramped low-altitude environments as one would hope, can't simply leave a package on the sidewalk near the recipient's apartment building, but they could more reasonably drop it off on the walkway near a home's front door, or even in the yard near a back door.

“You don't have the institutional, or the tribal knowledge that comes from getting the driver involved.” With that location locked in, the driver would hand the package up to the Horsefly's claw, and the drone would autonomously fly to its destination.

An electric truck is already a step up in efficiency and environmental responsibility from traditional internal combustion trucks, with a delivery cost to the shipping company of 30 cents per mile (compared to roughly a dollar per mile with diesel).

And though Amp won't specify the price of the drone, the plan is to follow the example of truck pricing, and have its initial cost as an optional feature calculated to pay for itself within three years.

There's no reason to assume that everyday recipients will see lower delivery fees as a result of drone-based efficiency, but packages could arrive more quickly after arriving at the local warehouse of shipping center.

Even if the driver does nothing but stare at the drone as it flies to a customer, the line of sight stipulation severely limits where it could land, since trees or homes are more than likely to block the driver's view as the aircraft descends.

Provided the exemptions go through, Burns sees that first test happening as early as this year, in a rural area where the driver can watch the drone's entire flight path (though landing it might still mean breaking line of sight).

Drones And the Future of Package Delivery

In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to integrate drones into the skies with passenger planes by September 2015, but observers say it's not likely that's going to happen.

When loaded, the HorseFly will scan the barcode on the package, determine the path to the delivery address via GPS and fly away –

'The fact that the delivery trucks are sufficiently scattered within almost any region during the day makes for short flights, as opposed to flying from the warehouse for each delivery.'

After watching the video, the ironic thing that struck me about the HorseFly is the pairing of what seems like a fairly noisy delivery drone with the quiet of an all-electric vehicle.

As Wired put it: 'There’s a big problem with the logistics of Amazon’s grand plan to deliver packages via flying drone: Sending swarms of aircraft from Amazon warehouses to American homes isn’t nearly as efficient as simply driving the packages on four wheels.

From both a technological and logistical standpoint, Amp's truck-launched drone scheme is as level-headed about the realities of commercial, airborne robotics as Amazon appears to be ignorant of them.'

Deliveries gone wild

Worst delivery ever? A FedEx man throws a computer monitor over a fence. CNN's Jeanne Moos reports on the flying parcel.

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